The Lowest-End Smartwatch

What if I told you that you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars to get a smartwatch? Yes you can get as notifications on your wrist, music remote control, and even make phone calls for less than $100. How can it be? Read more.

The back-story is that there’s a year-end party that I’m supposed to be part of. There’s a gift-exchange of sort as part of the party and the guideline is that the gifts should be valued at around S$20.

Now I’ve been curious about these U8 Smartwatches. These are watch-computers that works with your smartphone and pretty much competes in a similar space as the Apple Watch, Pebble Watch, or Android Wear. What’s intriguing is that U8 offers many of the functionalities of their competitors at a mere fraction of the price. I got one for S$21 (about USD 15) including delivery to my mail box. Whereas in comparison I paid over S$120 for my Pebble classic and the Apple Watch starts at S$518 (including sales tax).

U8 Smartwatch face

On paper the U8 Smartwatch is very feature-packed. The list is probably even more extensive than any of Pebble’s watches:

  • Phonebook
  • Pedometer
  • Sleep monitor
  • Play music (as a Bluetooth speaker)
  • Take calls (it has a microphone too)
  • Stopwatch
  • Alarm clock
  • Camera controls
  • Notifications
  • Vibrate
  • Thermometer
  • Altimeter (it has a barometer inside)

Notice that you can’t take phone calls on any of Pebble’s watches because they don’t have a speaker. Nor they come with a thermometer or barometer. Some of the other functionalities like Stopwatch, Sleep monitor, or camera controls are provided by 3rd party software in the Pebble. That’s probably one of the biggie since the U8 doesn’t seem to have 3rd party applications.

So even though I already have my Pebble classic as the daily watch, I bought a U8 Smartwatch to serve two purposes: to give away as a gift in the party and to satisfy my own curiosity. In other words, I bought it just to play with it for a few days to then gift-wrap and give away.

How was it?

To sum it up in a sentence, the U8 Smartwatch is a jack of all trades and master of none. It claims to do many things, and it did deliver most of those claims – checklist-wise. However it doesn’t do them in a way that’s pleasing for the user. Then again for the price they’re asking, I can’t really complain. As usual, you get what you pay for.

Take a look at a watch’s most basic function – timekeeping. When paired with my iPhone, the U8 doesn’t automatically update it’s time to match my phone’s time. I had to manually set the time on that thing, like a non-smart watch. On the manual they said that automatic time-update is only available when paired to an Android phone, which I find hard to believe. I had a bluetooth headset that can do this without extra software (the Sony Ericsson MW600 headset & FM radio combo – shows time as well on its tiny display).

Afterwards I tried out the Phonebook feature. Yes, I could scroll through my entire address book – which by the way contains 1000+ entries. But seriously, why would I want to do that? It’s another example of the “Let’s add this feature just to make the list bigger” thinking – without much consideration to how people are going to use it.

I must say that the Bluetooth calling feature works quite well. It has decent speakers and microphone that worked well for calls in my living room. Although I haven’t tried a real-world scenario of taking calls using the watch inside a food court. Remember that the watch is intended to be a gift and hence I needed to keep it in pristine conditions.

Most other features needs to be paired with an Android phone. I did tried out the recommended app as per the manual. Curiously it wants me to specifically name every other app that can send notifications to the watch – instead of enabling everything by default initially. Another interesting bit is that you need to enable the app to monitor accessibility events globally. I’m not a daily Android user – for full disclosure – hence it’s probably just me not used to how Android works.

Another odd thing is that some other features requires yet another app that is not mentioned in the manual. Namely the camera controls and messages feature said that it wants another app, although I already have the official app installed in the Android phone. Moreover I can’t seem to find the app in the Play Store. The watch said to install “BT Notice” yet there’s no app by that exact name. Play Store’s search results did return a few similarly named app, but I couldn’t make out which app is the “official” one. Frankly at this point I’m not keen to try all of these apps one-by-one.

U8 Smartwatch Pixels

The screen looks a bit rough; 128×128 pixels on a 1.5 inch screen. It looks just like my first color phone back in 2003, a Nokia 5100. Probably it uses the same screen module, since they’re very similar, both pixel-wise and inch-wise. Frankly text on my black & white Pebble classic looks a lot smoother.

There are three configurable background colors of the watch: black, cyan, and magenta. By far the default black one is still the best in my opinion. These colors remind me of the classic PC’s CGA color palette.

Build-wise it’s pretty solid. The black colored one that I bought comes with a rather thick watch band that has a similar feel to my Pebble’s white silicone band. The watch band is rugged on the inside and smooth on the outside, which should make it non-slippery. The watch body itself is about 8mm thick, about the same as my Pebble classic or slightly thicker than an iPhone 5.

As for battery life, I couldn’t really do a proper test without wearing it for a few days. On the back side of the package they wrote, “160 hours of standby time”. However the seller on the web said it lasts about two days. There’s a micro-USB cable bundled in the box and that’s how you charge the thing. No, there’s isn’t any USB to AC adapter plug included.

By the way, this particular model is not water resistant. Not even splash-proof. So be careful and treat it as if it’s your phone.

All things considered, the U8 Smartwatch is probably okay if you use an Android phone and want to know whether notifications on your wrist could be useful in your life. However you’d probably be better served by the more premium smartwatches. On the flip side, at this price you could also get a decent Casio digital watch that only needs “charging” once every seven years.

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